I'm almost embarrassed to be posting about this title today, given that it's been on the NYT bestseller list for most of the last year. However, as a teen librarian, my reading focuses on young adult literature; as a nonfiction writer, any other reading I do centers on what's new in nonfiction/memoir for adults. Adult fiction novels tend to fall to the bottom of my "to-read" list, no matter how good my intentions are.
Late or not, I can't let today -- Equality Day -- go by without posting about Kathyrn Stockett's beautifully-written novel, The Help. The novel -- besides simply being a great story about a white woman's efforts to record the experiences of black maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the pre-civil rights South -- also offers a reflection on the day-to-day realities that prompted the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights activists. I know the novel is fictional; but like any great work of fiction, the events, characters and tone ring true; our collective wisdom about equality recognizes that this novel is awfully close to nonfiction.
What compelled me to finish this book, once I finally began, was the story of the women of the time -- both black and white, but all repressed by societal dictations -- who nonetheless found ways to advance the cause of civil rights through their day-to-day choices. The daily courage of some of these characters, and the daily cowardice of others, present a snapshot of the entire civil rights movement: not the large, public events and speeches that we remember today, but the small, private happenings that shaped an entire generation of change. Miss Skeeter, Minny, Celia, Lou Ann, and especially Aibileen -- these women could be any woman; though characters, they will live in my memory indefinitely.
Read this book, whether or not you would be interested in the civil rights theme. The rich, varied characterizations alone rank it as one of the best novels of American literature to come out of recent years.
If, like me, you appreciate linguistics, you will particularly enjoy Stoddard's exquisite rendering of authentic Southern dialect, both Negro and Caucasian, educated and non-educated, rich and poor.
The dialect might pose a stumbling block for a less-advanced reader; though Stockett has written dialectal speech better than most writers since Twain, teen readers may lack the reading skill to understand what is being said. (Having taught The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to juniors in high school, I know some readers simply have not developed the "inner ear" that lets them decipher dialogue that is written exactly as people speak.) However, a more advanced teenage reader will be able to comprehend; I would have no problem handing this novel to my older two daughters, who read at approximately high-school senior and college levels.
Of course, the English teacher in me cannot resist making the obvious curricular connections to other great works of literature in this genre, particularly Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird. The Help offers us a picture of life as a Negro in America as well, but from the perspective of women living 100 years after slaves were freed, after World War I and II, in a time when American whites were living a period of prosperity as yet unprecedented.
Read The Help. If you have an older teenager who can decipher the dialect, and who has the maturity to handle some mild sexual innuendo and one or two PG-13 scenes, read it with them. Discuss how they feel toward people of other colors. Discuss what they know, and don't know, about this period in our American history. Discuss the bravery of the civil rights pioneers -- both Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we commemorate today, and those quiet leaders about whom we may never know.